Preparing for the Coming One – Advent Sunday 2014

Are we looking toward Christmas too fast?
Are we getting ready for Christmas without preparing for it?

I wonder how much we really look forward to Christmas?
Honestly now?! I can see some wry grins… I didn’t think so. You’re possibly not the only ones!

Preparations. Hard work.
A mad gallop of events to cram into the diary, shop for, cook for, and stand, or sit, around at, listening politely, trying to take in something that will actually make us feel as jolly as the coming season of Christmas seems to think we should be.

Church doesn’t make things any easier, does it?!
We can’t really let the vicar down at this, of all, seasons, especially after we’ve said we’ll organise this,
or that, or the other.
And, he can’t really welcome every extra person who wants to come and celebrate the coming of Christ all by himself, can he?!
Or, perhaps, after all, that could be what curates are for?! 😉

But it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if, before Jesus is born in a stable, all over again, we could have a little bit of a rest from the preparations that have to come first?!
Pleeeeaaaase, God?!

This Advent Sunday, we start to connect afresh with St. Mark’s Gospel; what I call the galloping gospel. There’s no time to draw breath, or unpack the detail, as layers of images pile quickly one on top of each other – a bit like the sliding tower of assorted Christmas cards, each waiting to be addressed appropriately!

Whilst we prepare for a Christmas neatly defined by a date looming in the calendar, the lectionary starts its year balanced delicately between past prophesies, and some distant future that can’t be defined on anyone’s calendar. Poised somewhere in between these two, is the present moment of our Christmas preparations, for the Coming One; the One who was, and is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s pleading prayer that God should reveal himself in power is not simply for his own spiritually weak generation, blown away on the breeze of the outside influences of their exile. The events it directly foretold were fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. But, by Jesus’ time, God’s people are once again mired in the spiritual blindness and gloom that blunders forward through momentous events, largely oblivious of their significance.

Our Gospel this morning, collects into a passage of urgent teaching in tones almost of desperation, a couple of short parables and some sayings of Jesus, that actually refer forward again, at least in part, to the siege of Jerusalem that will occur in AD69, and the final destruction of the Temple the following year. The last of the great prophets, Jesus knew only too well that his mission on earth drew to a close the need for a Temple as a holy place that contained God; something which would be symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain at his death. Jesus’s freely given sacrifice would mean his resurrected presence in Word and Sacrament would ‘not pass away’, for it was to be enough for the whole world. He was Christ, the Coming One, who was the awaited Messiah of what is now history; he who changed the world, and our lives.

Yet, as we take on our Christmas lists, there are those for whom the tiny excerpts from Isaiah that open our Gospel passage from Mark are a present reality. The Son of Man, the Coming one who is, wants to come in power into the lives of those for whom the natural light of the sun is darkened by more than simply gloomy weather. For some, the moon expresses the sense that they can’t exist without the brightness of others to light up their lives, and stars are simply a set of glamorous or over-paid figures on whom is placed too great an expectation, and who all too easily fall to earth in tabloid disgrace.

And yet, the one who is, who should be the present reality of the coming Christmas season (if you’ll excuse the pun), the one who is, needs us to be his messenger angels, to go into all the events of the festive season showing visible signs of joyful expectation at his coming, not a sense of distracted and total exhaustion. Whilst our time-line is in danger of being a linear movement from one stressful task to the next, God’s time line is radically different and he seeks a new beginning in the lives of those who are attracted to the light of Christ only at this time of year. Our role is far more important than that of being Santa’s little helpers! It is to make Jesus, the Coming One, visible not just in the services, decorations, music and poetry of the season, but in our own lives – the invitations we offer, the time we take to do things for others, and yes, the welcome we give to strangers.

What Jesus is asking for, the alertness of watchful doorkeepers to who and what is coming, isn’t just a reminder to recognise at the door of the church those for whom Christ’s first coming is a new experience. Christ, the Coming One, who is to come again, is also expected, and this time he will come in judgement. What Jesus is making clear above all in this Gospel passage, is that judgement is just as much part of his earthly mission in the lives of all who encounter him, as their encounter with his birth, death and resurrection.

Our chief task this Advent, the focus of our spiritual preparations, should be a rededication of ourselves to holiness. It is not something else to be done, another thing to add to the Christmas lists in our busy lives, but the desire to take stock of our how our faith influences our life. Followed through, we should be able to see what in our lives look like in the eyes of the Coming one. If we truly believe that Jesus will come again, we have to have our senses alert to those areas of our lives that cause our faith to fade, and the wrong-doings and wrong-thinkings that take us away from God, like a swirling wind. If Christ was to come again today, what would he notice most about our lives, and would he judge that as being for better, or for worse?!

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah speaks of the mountains and nations that tremble in the presence of God. If we stood in the presence of Jesus today, we might tremble for one of two reasons: either we will shake with thankful tears for his grace and sacrifice to which we have responded with a desire to ‘be blameless on that day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8) as St. Paul desires in our Epistle; or we will tremble with fear that whilst we might have made the attempt, our lives will be found seriously wanting as far as living up to his example and teaching is concerned.

As we wait for ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7) in the presence of the Coming One this Christmas, the one who was, and is, and is to come, we need to make our own preparations, ones that are truly appropriate not just to the modern context of the season, but to the spiritual context of it. It might be in prayer – the sort of prayer that gives space for God to answer. It may be in an Advent retreat or study book (with or without an online bookclub discussion), or in our willingness to do a new thing, or even in deciding that actually Christmas can still be celebrated without all the trimmings we’ve used in the past, to enable us to have space to be spiritually prepared as well. These are the activities in which we will encounter the ‘grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus’, and will mean we are truly “looking forward” to entering into Christ’s Mass, our joining in with his ongoing mission in the world.

How do you talk about God with pre-school children? Prayers and Bears!

George, a prince among bears - soft focus to protect his identity ;-)
George, a prince among bears – soft focus to protect his identity 😉

There’s something about ministry that means you end up with challenges you never expected to face. Leading a ‘Pram Service’ for pre-school children once a month is high on my current list of challenges. It’s name was the first challenge that I noticed: there are few who have prams these days!

I’ve watched the vicar do it once, with I have to say what appeared to be minimal planning, but he’s clever like that despite feeling a tad out his depth on this himself, I think it’s fair to say.

I was asked to do October’s. At the last minute he was called away to give someone the Last Rites, so wasn’t there to see the result. I used the lectionary for the day for inspiration (Like 11:5-13 The Lord’s Prayer) to focus on prayer, working on the basis that if you can’t teach very young children (some pre-speaking and crawling) anything else, giving them the confidence to talk to God, and making it fun was probably a good idea. I created a hand-prayer sheet. If they had the skills they could draw round an adult hand, otherwise it was simply something to take home to the family to encourage them to pray together (Hand Prayer sheet). We also blew bubbles when we prayed thank you at the end; I talked about God taking up our prayers as the bubble burst. Interestingly, I forgot to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end as I had intended, I probably should have. An unexpected joy was having a mother confident enough to breast feed whilst I told the story.

These were both ideas I half knew about, but I wasn’t sure if I used them appropriately. However, I was greatly encouraged when the following Sunday a Dad I’d not met before stopped me after our little Family Eucharist service, and told me his daughter had come home talking about the hand prayers and blowing bubbles! Perhaps I’d done something useful?!

Asking around on-line a bit, someone introduced me to the Teddy Horsley books by Prof Leslie Francis et al. I’d not met them, and nor have my parish, but they looked a good idea, as they try and relate to ideas pre-schoolers experience. They also suggested a useful ministry for a beautiful teddy bear I’d been asked to re-home (another story entirely). @CoventryCanon (aka Good In Parts) whose knowledge of such things I deeply respect, also said how much she’d always wanted to start a ‘Prayers and Bears’ Service in her previous parish. I got rather excited at this point: this might be a way forward!

2014-11-17 12.34.56 cwLast week my teddy, now named George, helped me tell the Teddy Horsley Night Time story as we thought about the nights drawing in, all the noises of Halloween and Fireworks nights (for those who could or would talk to me), and how God cares for us. George proved a great ice-breaker – he seemed to make me more approachable, and he’d been taken off by one of the pre-speaking children before I started! The book links to Psalm 91, but doesn’t suggest craft activities, so I came up with an incredibly simple two minute ‘sticking feathers’ activity! The Lord will cover you with his wings Ps91

Last night, with both George the Teddy and some bubbles present, PCC affirmed what the vicar had approved, that from January the Pram Service will be re-launched as ‘Prayers and Bears’.

Although I can sing a reasonable action song unaccompanied when our pianist can’t make it, I have no training in how to approach children who often are pre-crawling, or very shy. I have just the one child of my own for several reasons, one being we discovered when we had him that I don’t “do” small children. God it seems has other ideas!

So, I’m looking for the collective wisdom of more experienced ministers on this. What have I done wrong so far in how I’ve approached them and the materials I’ve used, and who or where are the best places to get training in how to be better at it? I’ve been told for example that ‘Godly Play’ isn’t necessarily the best idea for pre-school children. Right, or wrong? What gems of wisdom and experience can you offer?

Everyone Counts! The Kingdom of Heaven calls us all to be saints. Matt 5:v1-11 & Rev 7v9-17

I wonder how many of you did a “new thing” last Sunday morning, or were aware of others making a giant leap into the future, one which you also have made at some point in the past?

Personally, I think it’s really rather impressive that 142 of us here at St. Mary’s have used internet and mobile technology to comply with the church’s desire to make sure that “Everyone Counts”!

For many, the internet seems other worldly; a way of working in a different place. Some describe this other place as a “virtual reality”, something unreal, something perhaps a little dangerous. Granted, it can be, especially if misused or handled without care, but it can also be a force for good. In the case of the “Everyone Counts”church census, it makes the anonymous details of thousands and thousands of very real people across the country infinitely easier to analyse in detail, than might be possible with a paper questionnaire, and it helps the Church of England understand the character of the people of God it represents.

It shows in fact, that the internet is just as much a real place holding real information, as anything else that our God given, human ingenuity has created. It is no more unreal than the International Space Station orbiting, largely invisibly, above us. The internet is a real space that intersects with our own in a way that cannot be divided from our traditional earthly space, though some of us may, perhaps through fear of the unknown, try to keep that intersection to a minimum.

I wonder however, how much we also regard the Kingdom of Heaven as a virtual reality, an other worldly space; something perhaps more attractive than the world wide web, but still a space that we don’t really understand.
Perhaps most significantly, we don’t expect to inhabit this for ourselves until we die, when we hope we might become an addition to the heavenly statistics. The Kingdom of Heaven, it might seem, is a space that even
though we might try very hard to attain by being ‘good’, we’ve got even less chance of understanding and engaging with in this life than we have of understanding the internet.

The famous Beatitudes of our Gospel reading this morning, have been regarded as a list of ethical behaviours, and an encouragement and manual for discipleship. They are definitely not a series of truths about human behaviour, because we know for example that sometimes mourners do go uncomforted, and those who long for justice, often take that longing to the grave. Neither are they just a tick list of the attitudes that Christians should take to mark themselves out as suitable candidates for this other-worldly space we call the Kingdom of Heaven.

However, they are not so much good advice as good news, and they become easier to understand as good news if we can grasp that the promises they hold are not simply promises for some future heavenly experience we
live in desperate hope of, but are a declaration that in Jesus, God turned things upside down, and the Kingdom of heaven was inaugurated on earth, permanently.

We need to understand heaven as not a virtual, after death, reality, but God’s own space where a fuller reality exists, intersecting with our limited earthly reality in a way that can’t be broken. If the meek – those that humble
themselves before God because they realise their dependence on him and are therefore gentle with others – shall inherit the earth, they can’t do that if heaven is some disembodied after death experience. Do the pure in heart
– those amazing people we know who are pretty free form the tyranny of the divided self that is dependent on the influences and pressures of our own world – really only get to see God in the next life, when it seems they can
already see God in this one?

No.

The clue is in the Lord’s Prayer, where we’re clearly taught, “thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.” God’s glorious presence, that we hear about in our passage from Revelation this morning, his merciful action in coming down from his throne in person to wipe away our tears, started in Christ, and continues in the worship and service that as Christians we offer him in this life, and will reach its highest fulfilment when what we now
describe as heaven and earth come fully and finally together, at Christ’s second coming.

So, the life of the realm where God is already King continues to be brought into this world through those people who have grasped the good news of this realm where God is already King, and made it a visible reality in
their day to day lives. The saints of Christian tradition, and of our contemporary society, are those who recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here: it is God’s space, the reality of his constant presence, offered freely for us all to inhabit, and in which we are able to respond by living
according to the example of Jesus.

Pick a saint, any saint. I have a particular affinity for the Celtic Saints, I think because of they lived close to, and attuned with, God’s creation. So, I’m going to pick, St. Cuthbert, a monk and bishop of humble parentage, described in the Northumbrian Litany of Saints as
a hermit and joyous worshipper;
man of prayer and spiritual warfare;
patient minister of reconciliation.
This identifies him as someone who recognised God’s Kingdom was present on earth, not simply through the vision he received in childhood, but throughout his life, and through whom God blessed others as he travelled
through the communities of Northumbria.

There are contemporary saints as well, though perhaps as yet unrecognised by that description. Canon Andrew White, better known as the Vicar of Baghdad, is one I offer as such. Living with the physical restrictions of MS,
he strives as one who mourns the suffering and misery of the world to seek its relief, whilst also hungering and thirsting after righteousness as he works globally for reconciliation between faith groups and seeks to see God’s peace triumph over the evil in the world.

As with the fruit of the spirit, the Beatitudes aren’t a pick and mix selection of behaviours, they are a natural response of those who ‘get’ that the Kingdom of Heaven has already intersected with this earthly space we inhabit. They are not something only attained by those we have identified as heroes of the faith and set up as saints, but are part of our spiral journey into towards the throne of God, as our endeavours to respond to him by exhibiting his character, lead us to receive more and more of those
promised blessings: “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”.

Everyone Counts! We are all called by Christ to be saints; to recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven has been announced by him, and that it is not some virtual reality of the future, but a very real reality of God’s presence
intersecting with the world we live in. Whilst we continue to live in hope of the perfect future time when “people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, will stand before the throne of God”, we are called to do this ‘new thing’ in our own time, and live as saints in the current reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The background to this sermon is not simply our celebration of All Saints, but also the fact that were were selected to complete the Church of England’s ‘Everyone Counts’ survey in it’s electronic format, something that some of us at least felt we weren’t particularly well suited to. We were wrong on that. But it inspired this sermon.

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